The old woman in the shade of her town house courtyard does not wish to be photographed. In response to my gesticulated request her lips purse, head shakes and right hand ascends; palm pushing out in flat dismissal. I signal my respect for her decision and walk away.
This is Hoi An, where I find myself for the second time in two years. Some may recall how my devil-may-care parking in 2014 led to the impounding without warning of a hired motorbike. They may also recall my likening this remarkably picturesque town – port and capital to the Cham dynasty who ruled these parts between the tenth and seventeenth centuries – to Totnes in Devon. That’s why the lady refused my request when her counterparts in any city outside Hanoi or Saigon, or in any rural village of the Central Highlands or far north, would not only have acceded but thrown in a dazzling smile. This lady of Hoi An, by contrast, has been snapped too often by passing farangs she’ll never set eyes on again. Assuming she set eyes on them in the first place. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen fellow farangs/gringos – in Asia, Africa and Central America – take sneak shots then scurry off. What do they do with those pictures? Have their friends round and bore them to death?
I’ve written before, with illustrations, on ethical aspects of street/travel photography. When it comes to pix whose subject is a clearly identifiable individual or small group – I’m not speaking here of general street or market scenes, where all is fair game unless you’re in Pyongyang – I’ll sneak a shot myself from time to time, subject to two criteria. One is that there’s a good reason for doing so: and not having the balls to ask doesn’t cut it. Good reason means the moment must be seized or lost forever; a situation less common than snap-and-run photographers seem to think. My second criterion is that I won’t capture someone in a way that shows them in any light I wouldn’t want to be seen in. I don’t say there could never be exceptions to these rules: I’m a street photographer for God’s sake! I have to leave room for the possibility of a situation in waiting where I would see cause to break either or both. But so far I haven’t encountered it.
(March 19: a day after writing these words it belatedly occurs to me that I have indeed broken both rules: here. But since I was the victim of the would-be thief, I won’t be losing sleep over that breach of etiquette.)
Nor is this an entirely ethical issue. Unless they get very lucky, those snap and runners will go home with scores or hundreds of thoroughly mediocre “candid” street shots. As I said in that illustrated essay, far more often you get the better picture by asking. It’s not rocket science. In this cleaner situation you get to choose angle and distance, to position the subject if that’s appropriate, even to use off-camera flash if you have it – and these days I make a point of having it, for reasons I’ll go into another time. Best of all, most Asians haven’t lost the ability to throw to order the real deal: that magnificent, life affirmative here I am! of beaming humanity.
Hoi An not excepted. Yes, you’ve more chance of being fleeced here than anywhere in Vietnam bar the Big Two, Dalat and larger Mekong towns. But though I saw more farangs in my first fifteen minutes here than in the previous fifteen days, this is also a workaday town. The market where I and thousands of other palefaces love to stroll and snap draws even greater numbers of locals in search of the best fish, vegetables to be chosen with care – you don’t get to world beating culinary status by being sloppy about raw materials – meats and live stock. Contrary to first impressions, Hoi An – where in 2014 I turned up at a refuge for those disabled by ordinance dormant for decades, and by Monsanto’s nice little earner, Agent Orange – is no museum.
(Did I say palefaces? Farang is better. I’ve twice seen black westerners, exceptions proving the rule. Both were men with white girlfriends. I wanted to ask about their experiences – word is, they get a cooler reception here – but couldn’t figure a way in. What I can say is that one of the two, at a Danang seafood restaurant where the waiter ignored sir and made eye contact only with madam, sat back with the world-weary insouciance of one to whom this was routine.)
Here’s a thing. As I stepped off Yellow Bus #1 from Danang into the hustle of Hoi An bus station the other day, the xe om rider who grabbed my suitcase wanted 100k when I told him the name of the hotel, two klicks out of town, I’d booked that morning online.
I raised four fingers to underscore the point, at which he came down in small decrements – 85, 75, 60 – to a ‘last price’ of fifty, but I was having none of it. My forty was no opening bid, but exactly what I’d be paying; to him or another rider. Don’t ask how I arrived at 40k but once I’d decided on it, that was all I’d pay. I dare say a Viet tourist would have paid twenty, and a local fifteen or even ten. Often in SE Asia the asking price turns out to be twice the ‘fair’ one but all bets are off in a place like Hoi An.
“OK, OK, Forty thousand dong.”
He handed me a skid lid and with some difficulty hoisted my case onto the seat behind him, leaving just enough room for my pert derriere.
As we pulled into the courtyard of Han Thuyen Homestay I realised my smallest note was 500k; £15 in actual but at least a ton in real terms. (I’d discussed precisely this contingency a week earlier with friends met by incredible coincidence at Lao Cai.) Though apologetic as I proffered the note I was not at all concerned when he crossed the road – on his bike of course: Viet riders only dismount if it absolutely can’t be avoided – to get change from one of the shops opposite. No matter how fierce the haggling, a price once agreed is sacrosanct. Sure enough, when he returned it was to press into my hand four hundreds, one fifty and one ten. A deal’s a deal
I’d have stayed north had the weather held: loved Hai Phong, Nam’s third city, where I saw just one other farang in two days. That was a young Frenchwoman, with enormous backpack, who stopped me outside the long distance bus station to ask if I knew where to get the ferry for scenic Cat Ba. I didn’t, but had a town map so between us we got the answer. I thought it a shame she was straight in and out. In the face of stiff competition, Hai Phong’s the friendliest place I’ve yet found (see my pictures) in six trips. I was inordinately chuffed though to discover that some women still travel alone. Back in the day, with the feminist thing yet to kick off, I saw lone women crossing Afghanistan and India with class and verve. They didn’t have Kate Millet and sure as hell didn’t have Facebook; just bags of attitude. I felt like hugging Mmselle but she looked like she might knee me in the go-nows if I tried.
Anyway … the weather didn’t hold in the north but while Vietnam occupies roughly the same area as the UK, its long and narrow shape – straddling north-east and south-east Asia – give very distinct and predictable climates. An hour by air from Hai Phong brought me to sunny Danang. Two days later, and another hour by rickety bus, got me to Hoi An. I’ll probably use this as a base for motorbike explorations of the outer regions over the next week or so. Then, alas, my thoughts will turn to the long flights back via Guangzhou at month’s end.
Meanwhile expect further posts.